I used to think my husband and I were just slobs when we traveled — never planning anything, avoiding many of the “must-see” experiences, wandering randomly. Fortunately, someone recently wrote an article about a similar topic and I now realize we are flaneurs, which may be French for “slobs,” but I choose to ignore that question. (Everything always sounds more palatable in French, including aubergine, which is that language’s “eggplant.” Aubergine I might try; eggplant, never.)
Anyway, the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire coined the term flaneur, according to Wikipedia, basing the new noun on the French verb flaner, or to stroll. It can mean everything from saunterer to loiterer to loafer or lounger or stroller. Whatever. All I know is it makes me feel better, more legitimate, ever since I discovered it.
“Where are you going next?” a woman from Alabama asked my husband and me at a hotel restaurant in Ljubljana, Slovenia, yesterday. She and her husband had a detailed itinerary that had taken them to every museum and castle in Europe, as far as I could tell.
My husband and I exchanged glances. The truth was, we’d been arguing over exactly that question earlier that morning. Rent a car or take another bus? Stay in Slovenia or move on to Croatia? The only thing we hadn’t been arguing about was seeing a castle. We’re both in agreement: We’ve seen a few castles over the years and we don’t need to see more.
We didn’t say that, of course. You’re always supposed to dash to every castle within a radius of 50 miles or however many kilometers, then spend the rest of your time raving about the architecture, the craftsmanship, the art. Also, cathedrals. God forbid you should skip a cathedral. (“You must come back to see the inside of our cathedral,” a woman in Italy had told us. My husband had looked at the exterior of the cathedral and frowned. “Just think how many people died making it,” he’d commented — one of those conversational cul-de-sacs we often find ourselves in.)
“We’re not sure where we’re going,” we said to the Albama couple. They looked deeply troubled by our uncertainty. To help, they kept coming up with suggestions for us — You’ve got to see the old part of Ljubljana! It’s incredible! They make lace there like you wouldn’t believe! Then you can go to the castle. It’s really something!
We nodded and looked vague. The other couple warned us not to go to Croatia since “they” hate Americans there. We pointed out that most of the world didn’t seem to hate Americans as much since those vile, nefarious Republicans were voted out of office, which the Alabamans seemed to find at least marginally offensive. “Be sure and see the old part of the Ljubljana,” the man reminded us before we left.
After that, we rented a car and drove through Slovenia to Croatia. We drove through gorgeous green forests and stunning mountain ranges, crossed the border into Croatia and wound down to the Adriatic Sea. We’re staying in Opatija, a colorful resort town next to the water, populated by hotels that look like wedding cakes and tourists that tend toward the Germanic and Slavic.
My husband insists we go to a grocery store, which he loves to do in every country we visit. We play our usual game of “guess the nationality” of the other travelers we pass. We drink cappuccinos till the sun sets and then we turn to beer. We watch the smooth, azure waters and talk about our lives. We try to eat the native foods and drink the native drinks. We try, in our own way, to get a sense of what life is like here, how people act, how they greet one another. We try to get an idea of what it must be like to live in a country that has changed so dramatically after the fall of the USSR and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
I don’t recommend it to everyone — but this is how we travel and this is probably why we travel best on our own. Let everybody else crowd the museums and castles and cathedrals. Flaneurs are usually looking elsewhere, searching for something else. Or so we like to think.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)